The story of St. Nicholas is generally familiar. Nicholas was a 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now southern Turkey). As an apparent worker of wonders, his reputation was enhanced by a 9th century author who, in writing about him, related some rather amazing stories. Tradition has Nicholas dropping coins down the chimney of three young sisters, thus saving them from a life of prostitution. Another variation has him putting a sack of coins on the window sills, from which one of the sacks drops into someone’s stocking(s), hung there to dry. Central to the story was Nicholas’ desire to do his good deeds anonymously and to keep his identity a secret.
Eventually, the Dutch carrried the legend of Nicholas’ generous bestowal of gifts all the way to America. The Sinter Klaus character eventually became Father Christmas or Santa Claus, complete with an ample belly, a jolly laugh, a red suit and hat and, well, you know the rest.
Well, not exactly. What you might not know is that in Holland and Germany Sinter Klaus was portrayed as traveling on a white horse, while in other areas on foot, by goat, or on a donkey. In the old country, after he had been recognized as a saint and given an official feast day in his honor, legend has him visiting the town with gifts on the evening before his feast day (December 6) accompanied by the "Krampus" or “Black Peter”: an ugly, chain-rattling little demon, whose job is to deal with children who have been naughty. St. Nicholas was much too kind to do that.
After the Protestant Reformation in Northern Germany, St. Nicholas was said to have been replaced by the Krist Kindl, the Christ Child. I wonder if that’s where the secular reference to “Kris Kringle” comes from? Could it be that all this time “Kris Kringle” was really “Krist Kindl”, the Christ Child? Wouldn’t that be ironic!
Anyway, what the Dutch still do on this day is to celebrate Sinter Klaus on or around December 6. On this day presents arrive, gifts are exchanged, and families celebrate around a meal of turkey or ham or whatever. For the Dutch people who happen to be Christians, this obviously frees up December 25 to be celebrated as the traditional day on which to commemorate the birth of Jesus. For the Dutch, there is thus no confusion about secularizing Christmas, because Sinter Klaus Day has already been celebrated. Children have already emptied the contents to their stockings, and most of the clothing that doesn’t fit and toys that don’t work have already been taken back to the stores to be returned or exchanged.
After December 6, the rest of the month can be used by those who are Christian for the season of Advent: to ponder what it means that God’s Son came [“Advent” means “coming”] into this world, assuming human nature, and to look forward to God’s coming at the conclusion of human history. For those who don’t share that religious perspective, the remainder of the month serves as a prolonged, extended celebration of the Yule feast.
So, Sinter Klaus, Krist Kindl, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus -- you choose!